Drunk-driving laws aren’t tough enough
Take it from one who knows
Just before Christmas, I happened to hear Patricia Hynes-Coates, the president of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers Canada (MADD), the first person from Newfoundland to head that organization, on CBC’s “Radio Noon,” and found myself moved and mesmerized by the gut-wrenching story of how a drunk driver had killed her stepson.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve listened as HynesCoates related the sad and tragic details of the incident three years ago when 27-year-old Nicholas was killed by Ronald Thistle, loaded drunk when he smashed his truck into the younger man’s motorcycle. (Thistle was sentenced to two years in prison; the Hynes-Coates family was sentenced to a life of mournful loss).
But, for some reason — perhaps because I was actually driving while listening to the program, and could glance around and wonder if any of the cars and trucks in my area were being driven by impaired individuals — I paid even more attention as Hynes-Coates struggled to maintain her composure and told the story of her stepson’s unnecessary and premature death.
The “Radio Noon” program was part of that media blitz that occurs each and every Christmas season, as the community metaphorically locks arms in an effort to draw attention to the hideous crime of impaired driving; unfortunately, the campaign, as laudable as it obviously is, seems to be having little effect, at least here in Newfoundland. We were told very recently that the St. John’s metropolitan area had the highest number of convictions last year for impaired driving in the country.
And, just a week or so after Hynes-Coates had made her emotional plea on behalf of the innumerable souls who’ve lost loved ones to drunk drivers, a Lark Harbour couple in their 50s, Marilyn and Merle Sheppard, were knocked down and killed by a car driven by Walter Joyce whom police believe was drunk. What made the tragedy particularly poignant was the fact that the Sheppards and Joyce had been at the same family party, and that Marilyn Sheppard was Joyce’s sister-in-law.
(It goes almost without saying that Joyce is considered innocent until proven guilty. The bottom line is that the Sheppard family, and the tiny community of Lark Harbour, have been devastated).
When hearing that story out of Lark Harbour, and reading the statistics on impaired driving, you just have to wonder, as I say, whether even the most dramatic of social crusades, like the one headed by Hynes-Coates, is having an impact.
As I’ve mentioned in this column in the past, I was arrested in my 30s for impaired driving, and pleaded guilty (I was staggeringly drunk, and should have been nowhere near a steering wheel); so, unfortunately, I do have a shameful perspective on a crime that affects thousands of families in this country.
What I believe, first of all, is that the type of campaign launched continually by MADD, the police, and the media may, indeed, have an influence on the individual not normally prone to episodes of excessive drinking who happens to go overboard at a party or in a bar and has to decide whether to take a cab or get a ride with a buddy.
But the person who likes to have more than a few drinks with a certain amount of regularity (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that practice) is not likely to be swayed by any sort of driving propriety, is not thinking with any sort of logic or rationale, when half-cut.
And then there is the estimated more than 10 per cent in society who are problem drinkers, alcoholics, who will not have their drinking and driving habits guided or shaped in any way by public relations movements aimed at keeping impaired drivers off the highways.
In my own case, I was driven to my house by the police after practically blowing the breathalyzer apart at Fort Townshend, waited a few minutes, walked to the nearest bar, got even drunker, and eventually returned to my car, got behind the wheel, and headed home. I didn’t give a damn for anybody.
If I had had a chance meeting with someone like Hynes-Coates that evening, I would have simply told her where to go and how to get there.
And believe me when I tell you there are many, many others who still function the way I functioned back then. So is there an answer? It’s not exactly an original idea, but I’d suggest that the penalties for impaired driving are not nearly sufficient, that the sentences be drastically and dramatically increased.
Take away the impaired driver’s licence for years, not months, send him or her to prison for repeated offences or even the first offence if it involves an obnoxiously high alcoholic content.
Confiscate the impaired driver’s vehicle. And make sure the name is released to the media. (An individual can now lose a truck and a boat for poaching a few salmon, for mercy’s sakes, and have his or her name embarrassingly publicized.) It would at least be a start. And would help make worthwhile the highly commendable and difficult efforts of Patricia Hynes-Coates and others.